In the Quire of Ripon Cathedral, we are very fortunate to have an outstanding set of misericords, thirty two of which were created with great skill by master carver William Bromflet and his colleagues in the late 1490s. The misericords purpose was to give the clergy an opportunity to rest, perhaps unnoticed, when standing during the several, sometimes lengthy, daily services. Hence the name ‘misericord’ or ‘mercy seat’. This photograph shows how each ‘mercy seat’ was carved from a single block of oak, and that beneath the ledge for resting the carver created a biblical, every day or fantastical scene.
Some of the scenes are full of humour, a good example being the dancing pig playing the bagpipes. Are the wood carvers poking fun at the Scots who had carried out ruinous raids on Ripon earlier that century?
One of my favourites has Cuthman pushing his mother in a wheelbarrow. Mother does look rather cross and she is ominously holding the handle of a birch-rod which was used for flogging! I wonder what she is holding in her left hand ?
The skill of these craftsmen is remarkable. This being particularly demonstrated in three more serious subjects. In one Jonah is being thrown from the ship to be swallowed by a ‘large fish’. The carving gives us a bird’s eye view of the crow’s nest and rigging reaching towards us from a boat floating on rippling waves. We do not need to be too anxious about Jonah’s fate as, close by, the carvers have created the scene where, after three days, he is emerging from the fish’s mouth.
Jonah’s emergence links with the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb. The theme is the same in the misericord showing Samson escaping from the city of Gaza. The strong walls and towers of his place of imprisonment are delicately carved. However, the gateway is empty because, using his enormous strength, he has removed the wooden gates and is carrying them away.
Another misericord I would like to draw your attention to is the one we affectionately call the ‘Lewis Carroll Misericord’. This carving shows a figure with wings, claws and a beak, a griffin perhaps?, chasing two rabbits one of which has been caught. The other, fortunately, has escaped and we can just see its bottom and tail as it disappears down the rabbit hole. Lewis Carroll spent time in the cathedral when his father was a canon there in the 1850s. Perhaps this carving inspired the idea of Alice following the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole to enter Wonderland at the beginning of her adventures?
I look forward to the day I can look closely once again at these misericords, marvelling in the skill and imagination of the men who created them over five hundred years ago, but also share my wonder with the visitors we shall warmly welcome to Ripon Cathedral.
Godfrey M. Wilson, 13 May 2020.